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An effort to fund art instead of death row

"Execute Art Not People" plans interactive events to support ending death penalty

The Philadelphia poet, painter, musician, and activist Aja Beech spent the Memorial Day weekend — whose official observance commemorates those who died serving their country — finalizing the annual "Execute Art Not People" event, which seeks to redirect state funds from prison death rows to arts and education programs.

"With everyone volunteering time and space, we had to work around some very busy schedules — quite a round-the-clock labor of love," says Beech, noting this year's participation by Rittenhouse Square's Ethical Society, host of Friday's exhibition, and the Mural Arts Program, which will hold a related interactive painting session.

Interactive involvement from across Philadelphia's arts scene has been key to expanding the event, which was started in Harrisburg five years ago by Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (PADP). Beech has been the regional face of the operation since 2010.

"The interactive-art thing has always been an important aspect of the event, so that people experience the art and its relationship to the death penalty," says Beech, author of a 2011 book of poetry titled Beccaria, after 18th-century Milanese philosopher and jurist Cesare Beccaria, who opposed the death penalty.

To that end, on Friday evening "Execute Art" will screen Concrete, Steel and Paint, a 2009 documentary about the Mural Arts Program's work inside Graterford Prison. It also will display artwork by prisoners. Among them is Charles Lawson, who is serving a life term at Graterford, works with Mural Arts' Healing Walls program there, and is a cofounder of Art for Justice, which encourages prison artists.

"Execute Art Not People" is focusing its current discussion on one very pragmatic aspect of the death penalty — its cost to taxpayers. ?

"This state has an inactive death row that is one of the largest in the nation, wasting millions of our tax dollars a year," says Tayyib Smith, publisher of 215 Magazine and a Pennsylvanians Against the Death Penalty board member who assisted Beech with this year's event.

Says Beech, citing information from the Penn State Justice Center for Research, "Millions of dollars a year could be saved without changing anything about the situation of those prisoners on death row by converting their sentence to life in prison, even on a short-term basis. There are currently over 200 people on death row in Pennsylvania, and only three executions since 1978. Each prisoner on death row is estimated to cost $10,000 more a year than a prisoner with any other sentence. That adds up to $27 million spent on the death penalty since 1999 and a savings of over $2 million in Pennsylvania each year there is no death penalty" exercised.

Artists such as DJ King Britt, the choreographer Kate Watson-Wallace, the painter Yis Goodwin, and many others have been photographed with personal, colorful "Execute Art Not People" posters they created to publicize the event. The only requirement for participating artists was a desire to know more about death-row conditions, racial disparity, and cost.

"I originally got into the project because when Aja asked me for help. My brother was going through some legal troubles of his own that were pretty unjustified," says the photographer Sean Bolton, who took the pictures of artists and their posters. "If an imperfect system is in charge of making such absolute decisions about the life and death of people it prosecutes, then it needs some bucking back in order to balance the scales."

Ann Marie Kirk, director and cofounder of Art for Justice, says her organization acknowledges that for every prisoner on death row, a murder was committed: "These lost lives are foremost in our thoughts." But beyond that, she, like Beech, is concerned about how criminals are treated once they are jailed. All the prisoner art she has chosen for Friday's exhibition is by artists who contend they were wrongfully convicted, or who acknowledge their guilt and seek redemption.

"We select artwork that will resonate with viewers, leap barriers, bring people together, deepen and enhance understanding," Kirk says.

Robyn Buseman, Mural Art's Restorative Justice program director, crossed paths with Beech at a symposium in April where the poet facilitated a panel on working with victims and offenders. The two decided that an interactive art activity would be a meaningful addition to this year's "Execute Art" program. Participants will use construction paper, markers, and an instant camera to assemble a "prayer flag" reflecting the need for simple programs like the Healing Walls mural project at Graterford.

"While MAP does not have an official stand on the death penalty, my personal opinion is that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, is not enforced equally across racial and socio-economic classes, and is morally wrong," says Buseman. "Mural Arts has long supported collaborations within the criminal justice system, from prison staff, inmates, probationers, juveniles, and crime victims, along with communities, to allow healing through community improvement via art and lot beautification, job training for offenders, and a vehicle for dialogue among various groups involved."

Buseman also heard from Beech about her personal reasons for involvement in prison issues — a brother Beech says was wrongly accused in a death, and the murder of a cousin by her fiance.

"Dealing with the murder in a way that expressed honoring the kind and compassionate memory of my cousin instead of focusing on revenge helped us all get our minds and emotions into a place where we could go on with life in a very positive way," says Beech. "As for my brother, he had my family's support; [they] helped get the truth out, and got some of the charges against my brother dismissed.

"Many of the people on death row are indigent. Many people do not have the luxury of a family that cares for them or that will help them when they are in trouble. Everyone makes mistakes in life, but not everyone gets to try and turn those mistakes around or make significant changes in their lives for the better because of feeling abandoned and alone."